Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, January 24, 2020

Blog Roundup

1. After a series of debates between Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist organ Jacobin, ARI's Ben Bayer writes a thought-provoking analysis of Sunkara's "anti-intellectual case for socialism." He concludes in part:

Rather than answering Brook's facts, Sunkara invokes his pragmatism as a virtue. He echoes a point he made in the first debate, that if socializing a sector of the economy doesn't work, "we" could always vote to re-privatize [it]. There actually is a governing principle here, though Sunkara doesn't seem to want to name it: it's that the whim of the majority is supreme. The majority that gets to decide what counts as important, what counts as outcomes that "work," and, ultimately, whose lives should be interfered with or uprooted, and to what extent.

Sunkara had claimed that workers' collectives under socialism could be as innovative as capitalists in a free market. But given his pragmatism, we should now ask: how can human beings be expected to innovate in a system in which they must live in fear of how the majority will decide to experiment the day after tomorrow? How can they innovate when no clearly defined principle stops the majority from voting to rob them of their property, their freedom, or their lives? These are dots Sunkara does not do the intellectual work to connect. [footnotes omitted, emphasis added]
The cultural dominance of Pragmatism, goes a long way towards explaining how so many can find such "arguments" persuasive.

It also makes this piece disturbing news, to say the least.

One of the debates mentioned above.

2. Within the appendix of the second edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology are excerpts, in Q and A format, from a series of workshops on the subject involving Ayn Rand and various participants listed only as Prof. A, Prof. B, etc. If you've ever wondered who they are, wonder no more. Harry Binswanger names them all, starting with the full participants:
There were only five full participants, if I recall correctly: Leonard Peikoff, George Walsh, John O. Nelson, Allan Gotthelf, and me. The rest were "auditors" or "guests."
Binswanger notes that the workshops occurred fifty years ago now, and eventually gets around to identifying each "professor."

3. Brian Phillips of the Texas Institute for Property Rights offers a timely corrective to a popular misconception in a post titled "Cronysism Isn't Capitalism:"
Cronyism cannot exist in a capitalist society. If government is limited to the protection of individual rights, it cannot dispense political favors. There are no political favors to dispense. With government prohibited from interfering in the voluntary and consensual activities of individuals, politicians and bureaucrats cannot award benefits to some at the expense of others.
And, for anyone wondering what cronyism is, he covers that in another post.

4. I meant to mention this post at Tracking Zebra before now, but it remains timely. The health security expert reviews Peter Hotez's Vaccines Didn't Cause Rachel's Autism, calling it a tour de force defense of vaccines and science:
... I have read many book on vaccines and vaccine policies and this one stands out among all of them. Perhaps it is the way Dr. Hotez seamlessly weaves in his and his family's experiences with Rachel's autism. He covers the diagnosis, the daily trials and tribulations, the frustrations, and the successes.

Over 12 chapters, Dr. Hotez expertly addresses each vaccine "controversy" ("whack-a-mole") and illustrates with data and scientific reasoning why such controversies are manufactured and, in my view, essentially arbitrary. He discusses the celebrity culture that abets the anti-vaccine movement as well as the history of the anti-vaccine movement in the US.
Adalja goes on to discuss the fact that too many academic scientists neither engage with the public nor regard doing so as an important part of their work. Hotez argues that this fact is aiding the spread of misinformation about vaccines.

-- CAV


Watch Out for Inspirational Bosses?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

In his most recent Ask a Bureaucrat column, David Reed takes on an interesting question from a frustrated would-be innovator. Hedy Lamarr wants to know how to find a boss who will back her up when she has ideas for improvements at work -- but she "can't just ask 'do you support innovation' because [her] current boss would say yes to that, and it's not true."

Reed considers this dilemma in light of results from a workplace survey:

Through no fault of her own, Jenna was having a hard time filling her boss vacancy... (Image by Tim Gouw, via Unsplash, license.)
The researchers were surprised by their findings. One might expect "transformational leadership" to be better [at encouraging innovation] than "transactional leadership." But supervisors who had a transactional style -- that is, supervisors who reward employees for performance -- reported more change-oriented organizational citizenship (innovation) by their employees. Supervisors who had a transformational leadership style -- who try to motivate by instilling their values in employees and inspiring them -- reported less change-oriented citizenship behavior by their employees.

...

... Here's the explanation that I think applies to your current boss not supporting your innovation: If a supervisor is concerned with performance, then she will be happy with any change her employees come up with that improves performance. But if a supervisor is concerned with telling employees how they should think and feel about their jobs, so she can be a "transformational leader," then innovation by her employees threatens her role. [bold added]
I can see a fellow traveler being nonplussed for a moment -- especially one who thinks of former CEO of BB&T, John Allison, who is a very value-oriented and successful boss. Recognizing and rewarding initiative, as part of a mutually-beneficial trade is in line with the ideals he espouses and practices.

But that moment, if it happens at all, will be a short one. That's because such a reader will also recall that a common phenomenon in our culture is what Ayn Rand called the theory-practice dichotomy:
[Consider the catch phrase:] "This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." What is a theory? It is a set of abstract principles purporting to be either a correct description of reality or a set of guidelines for man's actions. Correspondence to reality is the standard of value by which one estimates a theory. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, by what standard can it be estimated as "good"? If one were to accept that notion, it would mean: a. that the activity of man's mind is unrelated to reality; b. that the purpose of thinking is neither to acquire knowledge nor to guide man's actions...
That this is such a common idea (and seems credible) is in large part because many people do not tie their abstractions down to reality. What do "innovation," and "values" mean to the boss in the question? What does "leadership" mean? This is especially true regarding moral concepts, which partly accounts for the common but mistaken idea that the moral and the practical are opposites.

After considering the advice in this light, I think the column leaves us with a general rule of thumb: If a potential boss/management hire makes much of "inspiring" his team or bringing his "values" (What values?) into the workplace, this merits following up at the very least. Sure, you might be interviewing the next John Allison -- but be on the lookout for management fads, vagueness about the meanings/details of implementation of (buzz)words, or even moral convictions that conflict with business success.

-- CAV

Note: Although the advice and the study deal with government workplaces, I think it is safe to say that it somewhat applies to what passes for the private sector.


"Sustainable" Finance vs. Your Prosperity

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Some time this summer, I recall hearing a discussion about anti-fossil fuel activist investors on a Power Hour episode. A recent post at How to Be Profitable and Moral reminded me to look into this trend some more.

The date of the specific podcast escapes me, but the post I just mentioned and another at the Center for Industrial Progress do a good job of outlining what this is and why it poses a threat to anyone who wants and needs cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy.

As seems obligatory with leftist initiatives, there is an abbreviation to watch for, in part because it helps adherents feel like they're in the know and in part since makes everyone else look or feel like they're missing something: ESG. This stands for "environmental, social, and governance."

I'm sure that when enough people catch on, some new abbreviation or acronym will replace it.

Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress cuts through the blather you're likely to hear and presents a bulleted list on what this means for the fossil fuel industry:

    Industrial civilization is beautiful in more ways than one. (Image by Cinq1, via Unsplash, license.)
  1. One of the leading strategies of the anti-fossil fuel movement is pressuring investors to divest themselves of fossil fuels for moral and economic reasons.
  2. The greatest success of this "divestiture" movement so far is harming hydrocarbon valuations by popularizing a narrative that projects a radical decline in oil/gas demand: the "transition to renewables" narrative.
  3. According to market surveys this narrative is already causing many investors to negatively revalue oil and gas stocks.
  4. To prevent you from challenging the "transition" narrative, the anti-fossil fuel movement is trying to mandate that you endorse it as part of your ESG reporting obligations -- which call for negatively biased reporting against your industry.
  5. While companies feel compelled to "check the box" on ESG, by doing so in the conventional way they are promoting the "transition" narrative and obligating themselves to reduce future oil/gas development.
  6. Fortunately, the ESG push has a giant vulnerability: its disingenuous claim to be concerned with accurate reporting to investors. This gives you the opportunity to agree with the demand for accurate reporting, but to criticize ESG's bias and to embrace "full-impact" reporting instead.
  7. With full-impact reporting as your foundation you can debunk the biased, sloppy "transition" narrative and replace it with an accurate and positive "expansion" narrative.
This is both a clear explanation of the nature of the threat and a strategy to fight it. Readers of Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels will recognize his application of several principles -- such as weighing all evidence -- to fighting this effort at whatever level one can.

And fighting this is important, a fact Jaana Woicheshyn puts well in her opening paragraph at Profitable and Moral:
The goal of "sustainable" finance is to incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations ... into investment decisions, as opposed to focusing on financial returns. To many, that may sound benign. But before you draw that conclusion, I urge you to consider what motivates the sustainable finance movement. As -- and if -- it gains traction, it will impact you whether you are investor or not. The impact will not be benign.
Indeed, but don't take my word for it: Read the rest of the post.

-- CAV


A Lose-Lose-Lose Situation

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Think carefully before burning. (Image by Max Beck, via Unsplash, license.)
Yesterday, I came across a post from a few years ago at Ask a Manager about how bad an idea taking an employer's counteroffer can be.

Most of the points in the post focus on how accepting a counteroffer changes the relationship between the employer and the employee. These all make sense, but won't necessarily jump out at most people in the situation -- especially those that might affect the employer. So it's worth heading over there to think about those.

But the last point is potentially the most important, given the fact that the others indicate that the employee may face -- or end up wanting -- an exit, anyway:
Good luck getting that new employer to ever consider you again. If you go all the way through their hiring process only to accept a counteroffer from your current employer, then the former is going to be wary of considering you in the future. If it's a company you'd like to work with, you might be shutting a door you'd rather keep open.
That's a great point, and underscores why I hold Alison Green's blog in such high regard. Green helps her readers understand how the interests of the different members of a work team can conflict or coincide, and makes it clear how to react appropriately.

Using a job offer as leverage with a current employer has good odds of being, as Michael Scott might put it, a "lose-lose-lose situation." That's good to know, but it is better to understand why.

-- CAV


The Fight Goes On

Monday, January 20, 2020

I am home with my kids for the holiday and find myself ambivalent about the fact that my first-grade son learned about it when he did at school.

Image by Ebony Magazine, from National Archives via Wikipedia, public domain.
When I was his age, I attended a racially-mixed Catholic school in Jackson, Mississippi. In the 1970's -- when there were still plenty of people who felt comfortable using epithets in conversation, and nerves could be a little raw. Nevertheless, I also recall not really being aware of such a thing as "race" until something like third or fourth grade. (A girl's older brother and an adult female made this real for me, one by glaring at me and the other by teasing me in their efforts to get me to conform to the norms of the day.)

Based on past reading, I am pretty sure that most children that young aren't aware of race, either, and my general plan for addressing this issue was to tackle it as I thought I needed whenever it eventually came up. In other words, I wanted, as far as possible, for my son to remain innocent on this matter for as long as possible, and to experience himself and other children as individuals, and not as members of collectives. (Of course, an important part of this for me is being ready to discuss the matter in a way he can understand if circumstances dictate. Maybe I have to start earlier than I had hoped.)

"He taught white people and black people to get along." The intention is good, but ... this was the first time he ever used the term "black" to describe anyone: Before then, if skin hue factored in to how he described someone, he'd use terms like "pink," "white," and "brown." I had hoped he could continue to treat such attributes properly -- as noticeable, but accidental -- for a little bit longer, so as not to pollute his mind so early with the idea of classifying people into groups based on them.

And maybe he still can. Time will tell, and I know to keep an ear out in the future.

But on top of that, I am also not sure that much of what went on then would make sense to a child. (And that's even after glossing over the ugliness and brutality that occurred due to racism.) There are ways to essentialize and simplify, but I don't trust many people to do that well.

In sum, I think in normal circumstances, children haven't yet acquired sufficient knowledge or developed a matrix of concepts necessary to understand the full significance of the holiday.

But maybe I am being pessimistic. You can say that about all of the holidays.

Perhaps something like, "Martin Luther King helped us learn to treat each other fairly, no matter what we happen to look like," is the way to start. As I write, that's how I think I will frame the issue, should it come up. The positive lesson is bigger and more important than race, anyway.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, January 17, 2020

Four Things

1. Over at Hacker News, is a post titled "Ever Worked With a Service That Can Never Be Restarted?," by an IT professional facing a problem that combines a high degree of technical difficulty with ample opportunity to become a scapegoat. Nevertheless, I'll admit that this part of the problem statement made me laugh:

The service has current up time of 55 months.
Whether or not you also laugh, take a look at the comment thread. Some of the advice about how to handle problems like that without getting burned is worth reading.

2. I enjoyed watching the below video, titled "Seeing Through the Sea." It's about an artificial intelligence-based method, developed by oceanographer Derya Akkaynak, of removing the blue-green cast from underwater images.


3. When you have kids, you end up keeping an antenna out for news about dinosaurs. Worth passing on to other adults is this report from the BBC: "'Beautiful' Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber." And yes, in case you haven't thought much about dinosaurs in a while, it has feathers.

4. A recent installment of pharma blogger Derek Lowe's "Things I Won't Work With" series ends its discussion of a recent paper humorously enough.
The [Senior Investigator] strongly warns readers that the preparations therein must not under any circumstances be scaled up, and that is clearly the advice of someone who has has your best interests at heart. Even at the amounts described, you will want an excellent and well-maintained vacuum line, access to noncommon nonhousehold reagents like the aforementioned bromine pentafluoride, a willingness to do things like redistill anhydrous [hydrogen fluoride], and you will at all times want to be suited up like you're going to going to spay a velociraptor. Ah, the halogen chemist's life for me, me hearties, yo-ho-ho and a barrel of ... well, we still don't know what to name it. Dang. [bold added]
You may enjoy the rest of the post, too, especially if you have a background in chemistry.

-- CAV


Why a Personal Knowledge Base?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Software engineer Thomas Kainrad has written a thought-provoking post about how he organizes such things as on-line information, software code, and his notes into a personal knowledge base. I am not a software engineer, but I found value in his post and think others can, too.

I've seen and even bandied the term about before, but had never seen a definition, so let's cite his:

Image by Campaign Creators, via Unsplash, license.
It is hard to imagine any other field where lifelong learning is more important than in software engineering. Another unique characteristic is the degree to which learning material is available for free on the internet. On top of that, we create various resources ourselves by documenting issues, submitting bug reports, writing notes, creating documentation, and many others. The sum of all these resources can be called a knowledge base. You could argue that every developer has a system to manage their personal knowledge base, whether they know it or not. In this post, I explain my knowledge management practices. [bold added]
After Kainrad warns against intermingling one's own data with that which should remain separate for various reasons, he discusses the kinds of information he uses and his system for organizing it, often describing the software he uses. Your mileage will vary, as they say. I don't see myself adopting the same database software, on the one hand. On the other hand, his level of detail about organizing notes will help me tackle some issues I have noticed in my own organizational scheme.

He concludes in part:
Similar posts often conclude with warnings that you should be very careful not to spend too much time on organizing and maintaining your knowledge and workflows. In principle, I agree with this sentiment. After all, you want to increase your productivity.

I do believe, however, that it is worth it to spend some time thinking about your knowledge management system. The most important part about conceptualizing a system is to decide exactly which types of information you want to maintain in your knowledge base. If you get this right you will benefit for the rest of your career. Even if the tools might change in the future, the system will stay. [bold added]
This is true, and all I would add is to state explicitly something that I think is only implicit in the post: You can't nail everything down at once. Your workflow and system will evolve over time as you learn more and your needs change. Perhaps the most important thing is a disciplined commitment to being organized, and an eye for figuring out and making the changes that will have the most benefit. In my experience, at least HAVING a system in place, however imperfect, makes improvement easy and permanent, however incremental it might be.

-- CAV